“The conventional wisdom was that everybody carried a rifle, patrolled the jungle and faced death daily, but that’s false,” said William Shkurti, who served as an artillery officer in a remote area about 300 yards from the Cambodian border in fall 1970.
Only about one out of seven were combat troops, said historian Chris Appy, history professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“Six out of seven served on bases. They worked in intelligence. They were clerk typists, cooks, drivers. They were the rear echelon. The guys with the gear in the rear. The guys with the beer with hot food and hot showers,” Appy said.
They proudly served their country, but were derided by combat troops as “REMFs” or “rear echelon mother (insert expletive here),” Appy said.
Additionally, not all Vietnam-era veterans served in-country. They were also stationed in Germany, Japan, Thailand, Philippines, Korea, Guam and the continental United States. Some people feel the term “Vietnam veteran” should refer only to those who served in Vietnam, but the U.S. government defines them all as “Vietnam-era veterans” according to the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 — any veteran who served on active duty during the official time frame of the Vietnam War (1961-1975).
Anyone who served in the military during the war faced the possibility of being sent to Vietnam, though.
“Maybe they didn’t risk their lives but they risked risking their lives,” said Meredith Lair, a Vietnam War historian at George Mason University and author of “Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War,” which examines the non-combat experiences of American soldiers in Vietnam.
Back at home over the decades, veterans themselves may have helped camouflage the roles they played during the war.
“In Vietnam everyone knew everyone and what job they had. When they got home they were all the same (veterans), but they did not all have an equal experience. Their silence carried a message” and concealed the fact that many veterans served in the rear echelon and not in combat capacity, Lair said.
Combat veterans offered “a truly unique and special contribution” to the war, but that “doesn’t mean it wasn’t a sacrifice” for people who served as support, Lair said.
“They gave up their lives back home. They left their families to fight in a war that wasn’t popular. Life at
home goes on without them, and it must have been difficult to navigate when they returned,” she said.
No matter where veterans served in Vietnam, they were a close witness to danger. They lived in an apprehensive state.
“Being a noncombatant doesn’t mean they didn’t feel scared, that there wasn’t a looming sense of danger even on the biggest bases that were considered safer areas,” Lair said.
To make it even more complicated, just what is a combat veteran?
“Is it just the guy with the gun? Is it if you might be in danger of a mortar attack versus projecting violence and delivering it to the enemy? There are different degrees of experience. At any moment all hell could break loose,” Lair said.